Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: How To Cut Your Raw Footage Down To Something Workable

It’s a deceptive beast, making a film. Because if you do it well, the result is an effortless and immersive experience. It totally engrosses the viewer. And it belies the amount of time and work that goes into its creation.

The viewing experience can also somehow give the impression that a film emerges fully-formed from the mind of a filmmaker. This is rarely the case – no, this is never the case. Even now, having filmed two expeditions, watched and logged the ‘rushes’ (raw footage), spent hours discussing the styles and the storylines, and trimmed away a substantial part of the footage, we still don’t know what the finished films are going to look like.

How is this possible? Aren’t they factual films – stories of journeys that actually happened? How can we not know what they’re going to look like?

Here’s the thing: for both Karun and Rio Santa Cruz, we have more than 30 hours of raw material. It is impossible to use all of it. So, having put some time between you and the events, the first stage of making a film of your journey is actually to get rid of most of your raw material. This is largely what we’ve spent the last two weeks doing.

People often assume that this process must be really difficult. How do you choose what to keep and what to throw away? Well, it is hard, and it can be extremely time consuming (the time it takes, by the way, is directly proportional to how much footage you shot in the first place).

It helps if you’re systematic about it. Here are the basic stages we’ve been through over the last two weeks, creating what is known in the industry as a ‘synch pull’; a linear and mainly auditory run-through of the entire story in preparation for adding visuals.

Step 1: Watch everything.

We need to be intimately familiar with the raw material we have. The best way to get familiar with it is to watch it. While viewing it, what we were looking for was the story experienced and articulated by the characters on screen – dialogue, decisions, actions and reactions. People, what happens to them in the world they inhabit, and how they respond.

What we weren’t looking for was pretty-looking visuals. That comes later – besides, our editors assumed we’d shot sufficient images to back up our stories, as any good filmmaker would do by default.

From this, we wrote up a document that distilled the entire film down into 30-35 individual scenes, each with its own little self-contained story, in the order in which they happened. We noted down the timecodes of the footage that related to each scene so that our editor could refer to them.

Step 2: Throw away the weakest material.

Having watched the footage through once, we had a good idea of the overall themes and storylines that felt the most prominent and the most closely aligned with our vision for the message of the film. This was mostly based on instinct; there’s no exact science to figuring out what’s interesting and what isn’t, but it does have to represent your values and your moral imperative as a filmmaker, else it won’t ring true.

We then went through all of the footage again, scene by scene, this time discarding entire scenes. You have to be really ruthless at this stage. Is a scene kind of nice, but not really relevant to the overall theme? Cut it. Is a scene only interesting because you were there when it was being filmed? Cut it. Is a scene half-formed because you forgot to film a few critical shots? Cut it. Is a scene quite simply boring as hell? Cut it.

There’s no shortcut to simply pressing the delete button over and over again, binning footage you spent hours shooting. You simply can’t be precious about it. When you’re on location with a video camera, you’re prospecting for stories; stories that might get used, but equally might not.

Occasionally you’ll know that a given scene is utterly critical to your story, but that’s quite rare. I can think of only 4 such scenes in the Patagonia film out of the 40-50 scenes we shot.

Step 3: Go through the strongest scenes and isolate the dialogue.

The next iteration involved tackling the beast scene-by-scene. We spent the end of last week and the first days of this week on this in the edit suite with our editor. There are usually a number of things going on at any given point in a journey, so the task was to figure out what purpose (or couple of purposes) each scene could serve in terms of the overall story, and simplify it down to that and that alone.

Again, we were not interested in visuals. If we’d done our job properly, the visuals would be there, and we’d track them down later. At this stage, we were still interested only in dialogue. Because it’s dialogue that tells the story. One of the best pieces of adventure filmmaking advice I could give anyone is to stop thinking of it as imagery with the addition of sound, and start thinking of it as sound with the addition of imagery.

So for each scene we looked through the rushes, found all of the dialogue, and put it on a timeline. In the style we shot the Patagonia film, there were three basic types of dialogue – pieces to camera (PTCs), in which I filmed Leon as he explained his experiences and thoughts to the cameraman, informal interviews (IVs) in which I prompted Leon with questions in order to bring out additional thoughts and opinions, and video diaries (VDs) which were filmed by Leon himself. (In short, there’s a lot of Leon.)

We watched through it all (again), pausing after each clip or each topic spoken about, and asked ourselves: was that relevant to any of the potential purposes of this scene? If the answer was no, then no matter how interesting or funny or clever it was, we cut it. There’s no room in a film for anything irrelevant, unless a scene really needs a lift or a break for the audience’s sake, which is something you can only know on intuition.

What we were aiming to end up with was, for each scene, a whittled-down selection of dialogue that would explain what was going on, move the story forward and illuminate one or more of the major themes of the film in some way – one which, if you ignored what you saw on the screen and just listened to the audio, would more or less tell someone the story of what happened. This relied, of course, upon us having shot that dialogue to begin with. (This is one of many reasons why every budding camera operator should be shooting and editing their own material regularly, in order to learn what is and isn’t needed in the edit.)

We did this for each of 30 or so scenes. The result was a timeline of 6 or 7 hours in length. Yep – 6 or 7 hours of Leon talking pretty much non-stop.

4. Do it again, being even more ruthless.

6 or 7 hours is a lot less than 30, but it’s still way too much raw material. So our next step was to watch the whole lot through again and cut even more. The story was taking shape; we just needed to boil it down to a manageable length. Again, we knew that entire sub-stories would end up being cut, as well as dialogue we previously thought critical – that’s the nature of the beast.

So on this iteration, the question to ask of each clip was: could we tell the story without it? What combination of bits of dialogue would portray the action, emotion, challenge and humour of the scene in the simplest way, while still remaining honest? Where can we cut out all the ums and ahs, the repetition, the confusing or contradictory lines, the waffle surrounding the main point? Also, in the light of the rest of the material, does the scene still matter, or is it now surplus to requirements?

The ability to discuss these questions between the three of us – me, Leon and our editor Scott – was critical at this stage, as we’d all have slightly different opinions, and being able to soundboard them with each other made us all more confident on the final decision to keep or cut a clip. This ability to collaborate is one of the main reasons we ran this campaign: the eye of an experienced editor is invaluable at this stage.

Another thing worth mentioning at this point was that – as usual in projects like this – a line of dialogue might sometimes seem more relevant if it was moved out of chronology and placed in a different point in time, or even in another scene altogether. There is nothing wrong with this, any more than any other kind of storyteller might condense and cluster bits of information for clarity. As a filmmaker you have the artist’s license to use the raw material creatively to tell the most honest version of the tale you can.

Doing this, we were able to trim the timeline down to just over two hours of heavily condensed and cherry-picked dialogue. That’s a much more feasible starting point for beginning to assemble the scenes and build a ‘rough cut’ of the film – which will be the next stage in the process.

* * *

Next, having chosen the strongest scenes, sifted through all the dialogue and identified the bits that move the various storylines forward, we are about to enter the real creative playground, when we get to look through all the supporting visuals – the epic landscapes, the close-ups, the point-of-view material, the sunsets and the travelling shots – and experiment with mixing it up in various ways with the dialogue. In short, this is where it gets fun!

I’ll be back with another filmmaking update in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned…


2 responses to “Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: How To Cut Your Raw Footage Down To Something Workable”

  1. Very clear, makes sense. Dialogues first, visual last! Thanks Tom

  2. Great article,
    I’ve just started film editing with FCP X and found your piece really enlightning in a way that i know how to start the process in my head but found it a little harder to formulate for myself on paper if you know what i mean.The article really helped.I also like mucking about on Mountain bikes which is how i found your blog. Cheers

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